A large brick mansion with white columns behind a green fence.

AASLH urges The Montpelier Foundation (TMF) to honor its June 2021 commitment to treat the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) as its full partner in restructuring the TMF Board of Directors.

On March 25, 2022, the TMF Board voted to change its policy of shared governance with the MDC, a nonprofit group representing descendants of people enslaved by the Madisons. Instead of accepting recommendations from the committee for new members of the board as agreed last year, the board will begin deciding for itself who represents the descendant community. This is a sharp and unfortunate turn from the foundation’s highly publicized decision in June 2021 to restructure itself by approving “bylaws to establish equality with the Montpelier Descendants Committee in the governance of James Madison’s Montpelier.” Indeed, at the time, the foundation emphasized how the “unprecedented decision” was the result of a “year-long process by the Board” with “tremendous leadership from, and collaboration with, MDC and represents an important step toward equity and reckoning with histories of racism.”

The actions put forth by the organization in 2021 placed Montpelier at the forefront of the movement to recognize the descendants of the enslaved at historic sites by offering a real voice in the governance of the organization. It was welcomed and shared with AASLH members as a national model hopefully to be replicated in other historic sites. The news of recent board action by the site can be seen as taking a big step backward in the fight for inclusion instead of pushing our field forward in a way that makes a difference at the core of this historic property.

Most importantly, as observed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which leases James Madison’s Montpelier to TMF, the June 2021 commitment which TMF has just rescinded specifically “acknowledged the right of the descendant community to define itself, rather than be defined by the Foundation.”

While the foundation now states that it is “broadening the pool of candidates from the descendants community, not just limiting ourselves to those who are favored by the committee and its chair,” the effect will be the opposite. Whereas before the MDC was choosing new members of the board to move that body toward 50-50 parity, it now will only be making recommendations that the board might or might not consider. The foundation’s maneuver alienates the MDC, the major representative of descendants, erodes trust between historical institutions and their descendant communities at Montpelier and elsewhere, and discounts the expertise of staff members who have worked for years building relationships with the descendants.